They're giving it all away

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 04 December, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 04 December, 2011, 12:00am

When Cheryl Wilson gave birth to her first daughter three years ago, friends and family showered her with so many baby gifts - many of them duplicates - that she ran out of storage space at home. She appreciated the kind gestures, but as a successful professional married to another one, she couldn't help seeing the gifts as something of a waste.

'To be honest, we already have everything we need,' says Wilson, former head of tourism with InvestHK. 'But the gift-giving culture is such a big part of everyday life, especially in Hong Kong, that it's almost rude to tell others not to buy gifts for you.'

Wilson had just read a report about the growing disparity between the rich and poor in Hong Kong, and she had a brainwave while she was trying to shove multiple baby carriages into a closet.

'Wouldn't it be great if we could combine traditional gift giving with helping those in poverty?' Wilson recalls asking herself.

The idea percolated in her head for a while. After giving birth to a second daughter earlier this year, she quit her job to focus on what she calls her 'three babies': the two daughters and Charitable Choice, a charity gift card service she launched last month.

The concept - essentially a way to donate money to the charity of a recipient's choice - has been operating in other countries for some time. But Charitable Choice is the first Hong Kong-based service whose sole focus is on helping local groups. These range from animal welfare organisations to orphanages and hospices.

Home-grown organisations such as Charitable Choice and the Mustard Seed Workshop, which distributes items made by marginalised Asian communities, reflect Hongkongers' interest in charitable endeavours.

And it's a growing interest, explains Kate Falconer, communications officer for the Crossroads Foundation - a non-profit organisation that redistributes excess goods from affluent donors to people in need around the world.

'There have been more fair trade events in Hong Kong recently,' she says, citing the charity bazaars organised by the American Women's Association and the Community Advice Bureau. 'Every Christmas, business in our shop picks up, so it should be the same for Charitable Choice and Mustard Seed.'

Former banker Charlene Kotwall was inspired to start her venture after a 2009 trip to Qinghai, where she met a missionary with a Harvard law degree working with children in need. 'After I got back, I couldn't sit still at work,' she says.

'The trip made me realise that in Hong Kong, we have more than we'll ever need, and everything in the corporate world just seemed so shallow to me.'

Kotwall looked around for ways she could help and came up with a basic business model for selling fair trade products based on Crossroads' global handicraft programme.

Like Wilson, Kotwall left her job to focus on her start-up. But while Wilson's family and friends were extremely supportive of her idea, Kotwall faced a lot of scepticism.

'My parents were upset with me,' Kotwall recalls. 'They said to me, 'Oh, it cost us so much money to pay for your education and you're just going to throw it all away.''

Her banker colleagues also questioned the move.

Facing doubt and limited funds - she had just HK$50,000 in savings when she left the bank - Kotwall decided to name her venture after a parable in the Bible.

'If you have faith, even faith as small a mustard seed, you can move mountains,' she says.

The two start-ups took a similar approach. Both women spent several months seeking out well-known charities and smaller institutions. Wilson looked locally, and Kotwall searched around South and Southeast Asia.

Wilson had set two goals for her meetings: to build partnerships with big charities such as Po Leung Kuk and WWF, and to highlight lesser-known groups such as the Hong Kong Dolphin Conservation Society.

Charitable Choice is essentially a one-woman operation, with Wilson working out of her husband's office. It takes a 5 per cent cut from the value of the gift card to maintain its website and cover operating expenses. Even so, she sees handling everything from administrative work to website maintenance as a stressful yet rewarding experience. 'This is probably not going to be a money-making business. It's a passion project,' she says.

Kotwall was set to take a similar path, but a few breaks helped hasten Mustard Seed's expansion. About a year ago, she secured a loan from the Trade Development Council's Young Business Hong Kong scheme. Then she struck up a partnership with the Mandarin Oriental to sell her products at the hotel spa.

'Having a physical store as opposed to just having an online presence was a big step forward,' says Kotwall.

Mustard Seed offers a wide range of products, such as coffee beans from Laos, handmade aroma candles from Nepal and hand-bound journals from India. 'Having that variety means you can reach a bigger audience,' Kotwall says. All are produced by impoverished communities in the various countries. Mustard Seed's most popular seller is a line of pearl necklaces and earrings designed by Kotwall and made by struggling communities in Hong Kong.

'We're trying to be the bridge between small grass-roots shops in developing countries and Hong Kong consumers,' she says.

Another start-up venturing into charitable gifts is Ignite Experience, an online service for men started by Sai Kung residents Peggy Buijsers and Mareen Windisch. This provides pre-planned dates, dinners and gifts. 'Working life can be hectic, and we understand that men may not have much time to plan romantic dates or buy a thoughtful gift for their wives,' says Buijsers.

Initially selling 'treats' such as romantic dinner packages and spa treatments, the pair decided to incorporate charitable gifts into their web sales strategy in August.

'We thought it'd be a great way to give back, so each of us picked a charity to support,' says Buijsers.

They chose Hong Kong Rescue Puppies and the Changing Young Lives Foundation. The latter is among the 23 organisations on Charitable Choice's list.

Marcia Aw, executive director of Changing Young Lives, is excited about the boom in charitable gifts, but adds: 'Regardless of money raised, they've increased awareness for our cause, and that's equally important.'

The altruistic entrepreneurs are already planning to extend their reach. Kotwall aims to market Mustard Seed's jewellery to wedding vendors, and Wilson hopes to partner with corporations to provide customised cards for companies.

'Hongkongers are generous and are willing to give,' says Wilson. 'We just needed to find a way to direct the giving to those in need.'

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